He Died At 32, But A Young Artist Lives On In LA's Underground Museum | KUOW News and Information

He Died At 32, But A Young Artist Lives On In LA's Underground Museum

Aug 29, 2016
Originally published on August 29, 2016 4:50 pm

It's a sweltering night in July and Los Angeles' Underground Museum is packed. "It's crowded and hot, but it feels really good," says vistor Jazzi McGilbert. Like much of the crowd, McGilbert is young, creative and African-American. She drove across town to this unassuming, bunkerlike storefront for an event that combines art and activism. The museum is one of her favorite spots in Los Angeles. "I like what it stands for," McGilbert says. "... And the art is incredible."

The Underground Museum aims to promote cutting-edge African-American art, but inclusiveness is also part of its mission. "This is a black space," a message on the museum door reads, "but all are welcome."

When artist Noah Davis founded the museum, he wanted to do two things: sidestep the existing gallery system, with its rigid hierarchies and gatekeepers, and bring world-class art to a neighborhood he likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums. Davis died a year ago Monday of a rare form of cancer.

A beyond audacious request

When Davis began working on the museum, he was a rising art world star with powerful friends, like Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Molesworth remembers when Davis first asked for her help.

"He wasn't asking for, you know, someone to help him with the marketing ... he was asking us for the art," she says. In other words, he was asking the museum to lend him whatever he wanted from its valuable collection — a beyond audacious request.

"No one had ever asked like that before," Molesworth says. She was intrigued by the idea that an institution like hers could help bring art to people who might not otherwise see it. But she didn't just hand over MOCA's art — first she helped Davis upgrade the Underground Museum's security and HVAC system to protect the art. Then she left it alone.

"I know how to make a museum," Molesworth says. "I don't know how to make an underground museum."

Noah Davis did. When he died from cancer, he was only 32 years old. He left instructions for the next 18 shows, but they're mostly just concepts, titles and lists of the works he wanted to display. In the wake of his death, Megan Steinman joined as the museum's director. She understood their goal of challenging what museums can be.

"Museums are gorgeous," Steinman says, "but they also come with this idea of how you're supposed to be and how you're supposed to stand and how loud you're supposed to be and if you can talk or not." Also: whether you can afford the entrance fee and how hard it is to get there. "And then you get there and it's like massive walls and these cavernous spaces," she says, "and it's like all these things that are telling your mind how to think before you even get to the artwork itself."

The artwork at the Underground Museum is cutting-edge and often conceptual. One work features wallpaper that shows a lynching. Noah Davis hung a photograph on top of it — a haunting, real-life portrait of a lynching victim's wife in the American South from 1949.

"The look in her eyes — that grief, that pain — you can just feel her heart and her soul in this photograph," says Karon Davis, Noah Davis' widow and the museum's co-founder.

'Noah's magnum opus'

Karon Davis is also Los Angeles royalty: She's the daughter of actor Ben Vereen and part of an electric circle of black artists and intellectuals. (That circle includes her late husband's brother, Kahlil Joseph, who co-directed Beyoncé's visual album Lemonade.)

But the Underground Museum is resolutely down to earth — like a community center that just happens to show art by giant stars, like Kerry James Marshall. (Marshall is about to have a major retrospective at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he lent some personal work to the Underground Museum show.) There are yoga classes and a spacious outside garden where people in the neighborhood are encouraged to hang out and read. It's called the Purple Garden because, Karon Davis explains, her late husband thought everyone should be treated like royalty.

Steinman says Noah Davis' legacy is what's keeping the Underground Museum alive. "This space is Noah's magnum opus. It is his biggest installation work; it's his gift. And now he's not here and now we all get to still keep on being in conversation with him."

It's a conversation in which no one gets the last word. Unlike most museums, Noah Davis didn't put text on the walls to tell people what to think of the art he chose — art about perseverance, racial violence, family and resistance. He trusted visitors to decide for themselves.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the artist Noah Davis died of a rare form of cancer, he left behind paintings, videos and perhaps most significantly a museum he founded in a Los Angeles neighborhood without much else in the way of art. Davis died exactly one year ago, and NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the museum to see how this Underground Museum is doing.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: On this sweltering night, the Underground Museum was packed.

JAZZI MCGILBERT: It's crowded. It's hot, but it feels really good. I'm glad it's crowded and hot honestly.

ULABY: Visitor Jazzi McGilbert, like many folks crammed in here tonight, is young, creative and African-American. She drove across town to this unassuming, bunker-like storefront for an event combining arts and activism, partly why the Underground Museum is one of her favorite spots in Los Angeles.

MCGILBERT: I like what it stands for I mean from the words on the door outside that say, you know, this is a black space, but all are welcome.

ULABY: To its promotion of cutting-edge African-American art.

MCGILBERT: And the art is incredible.

ULABY: When artist Noah Davis founded the Underground Museum, he wanted to do two things - sidestep the existing gallery system with its hierarchies and gatekeepers and bring world-class art to a neighborhood he likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums. Davis was a rising star with friends like the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Helen Molesworth remembers when he asked her for help.

HELEN MOLESWORTH: So he wasn't asking for, you know, someone to help him with the marketing or - do you know what I mean? He was asking us for the art.

ULABY: Beyond audacious to ask for a loan of whatever he wanted from MOCA's valuable collection.

MOLESWORTH: No one had ever asked like that before.

ULABY: But Molesworth was intrigued by the idea that an institution like hers could bring art in this way to people who might not otherwise see it.

MOLESWORTH: This is pretty much unheard of.

ULABY: Of course Molesworth did not just hand MOCA's art over. She insisted the Underground Museum upgrade its security and HVAC. Then she left it alone.

MOLESWORTH: I know how to make a museum. I don't know how to make an underground museum.

ULABY: Noah Davis knew how to make an underground museum. When he died from cancer, he was only 32 years old. Davis left instructions for more than a dozen shows, but they're mostly just ideas and lists of the works he wanted to display.

KARON DAVIS: Come on in.

ULABY: Here we are, walking into the museum with Noah Davis's widow. Karon Davis is the Underground Museum's co-founder.

DAVIS: Museums can be intimidating.

MEGAN STEINMAN: Yeah.

ULABY: Davis hired a director, Megan Steinman, to help run the Underground Museum in the wake of her husband's death partly because Steinman shared their goal of challenging what museums can be.

STEINMAN: Museums are gorgeous, but they also come with this idea of how you're supposed to be and how you're supposed to stand and how loud you are supposed to be and if you can talk or not.

ULABY: And whether you can afford the entrance fee, how hard it is to get there.

STEINMAN: And then you get there, and it's, like, massive walls and these cavernous spaces. And it's, like, all these things that are telling your mind, like, how to think before you even get to the artwork itself.

ULABY: The artwork at the Underground Museum is cutting-edge, often conceptual, like wallpaper that shows a lynching. Noah Davis hung a photograph on top of it - a haunting real-life portrait of a lynching victim's wife in the American South.

DAVIS: The look in her eyes - that grief, that pain. You could just feel her heart and her soul in this photograph.

ULABY: Koran Davis is Los Angeles royalty. She's the daughter of actor Ben Vereen. She's part of an electric circle of black artists and intellectuals, including her late husband's brother, who's also an artist and co-directed Beyonce's latest huge project, the hour-long video, "Lemonade."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY")

BEYONCE: (Singing) He trying to roll me up.

ULABY: But the underground museum is resolutely down to earth. It's like a community center that just happens to show art by giant stars like Kerry James Marshall. He's about to have a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are yoga classes and a spacious outside garden where people in the neighborhood are encouraged to hang out and read. It's called the Purple Garden, says Koran Davis, because her late husband thought everyone should be treated like royalty.

DAVIS: I miss him.

ULABY: What's keeping the Underground Museum alive, says its director Megan Steinman, is a sense of purpose and responsibility.

STEINMAN: This space is Noah's magnum opus. It is his biggest installation work. It's his gift. And now he's not here, and now we all get to still keep on being in conversation with him.

ULABY: Noah Davis chose art about perseverance, racial violence, family and resistance, but there's no text on the walls telling people what to think. Noah Davis trusted visitors to have a conversation where no one gets the last word. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.